Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 21, 2013

Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 21, 2013

CREATED Jun 21, 2013


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

June 21, 2013



Three more high level employees of the travel stop company owned by the family of Governor Bill Haslam and his brother, Jimmy, the owner of the NFL Cleveland Browns, have pleaded guilty to being part of a fraud scheme to cheat trucking companies out of rebates.

The latest pleas now bring to five Pilot Flying J employees who have decided to admit their guilt and assist federal investigators in their ongoing probe of the Knoxville-based business. All this has already happened with no indictments or court trials and in just a few short months since the probe became public (April 15) when the FBI raided the company's headquarters.

Will there be more guilty pleas? That remains uncertain, although so far the activities of the federal investigators resemble those in other such criminal cases where guilty pleas by lower level workers led to other pleas and/or indictments further up the command chain.

Governor Haslam has large investments in the company but he played no day-to-day role in the firm for years and has not been implicated in any way in the probe. Brother Jimmy runs Pilot Flying J and has denied any involvement or knowledge of wrong doing. However, some evidence disclosed by investigators in court documents do raise questions about Jimmy Haslam's knowledge and involvement surrounding Pilot Flying J's purchase of an airplane that had belonged to one the trucking firms mentioned in the probe.


The buoys are gone below the dams along the Tennessee River.

Let the fishing begin (or actually resume).

The federal Army Corps of Engineers has bowed to the will of Congress and the passage of the "Freedom to Fish Act" and there will be no further attempts by the agency to stop anglers from using the waters below the dams. Senator Lamar Alexander, who led the congressional fight, has issued a statement saying it's "the right way to end the fishing controversy."

I would say it's about time the Corps realized it was fighting a battle it could not win. And that's no fish story.


Another politician fighting an increasingly upstream battle to keep public approval numbers up is President Barack Obama. The trio of scandals (Benghazi, NSA and the IRS) that have bedeviled him in recent months now shows his approval rating (in the latest Gallup poll) slipping to 46%, with 47% saying they disapprove of the job he is doing. A few months ago, after his re-election, the positive number was closer to 50%.

The declines are not huge, and perhaps Mr. Obama can find a way to rebound down the road in the three years remaining in his second term. If he does, he'll do the opposite of his predecessor George W. Bush who saw his poll numbers decline in his second term (with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Hurricane Katrina disaster) and never recover.

But it is interesting to note, over four years after leaving office, Mr. Bush's poll numbers are finally better in the latest Gallup survey. In fact for the first time since 2005, the former president is seen as "more positive than negative" by the public (49% favorably, 46% unfavorably). I am sure President Obama hopes it won't take that long for his numbers to rebound.


We talked briefly last week about the public statements and positions our Tennessee Senators are taking in the immigration reform debate in Washington. Now Senator Bob Corker is taking a very high profile active role, co-authoring an amendment regarding increased border security (especially along the southern border). Supporters hope Corker's proposal (some compare it to a "border surge") will build a large bi-partisan majority to vote in favor of the entire bill.

But that's just in the Senate. Approval in the GOP-controlled House is a different matter.


The budget making process has been so quiet in recent years for Nashville's city government (including last year's property tax increase) that you sometimes forget that in other parts of the state it's not that way.

In fact the fight in the City of Memphis over taxes and the budget has led a top state official to hint he might intervene if something isn't worked out by the end of the month (which is the end of next week).

THE MEMPHIS FLYER in a story (picked up by the NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL, June 20) has an interview with Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson who points out that under state law he has "expansive authority" to take over the process if city leaders can't get it done.

"It's pretty strong and there is absolutely no question that I've got to approve the budget. If the budget doesn't balance, I can bring it into balance. There is no question I can raise taxes. I want to be clear about this. I hope we never get there. It's the last thing in the world I want to do. This is not what I'm all about. I don't want to argue about my authority and all that kind of stuff. But look at the statute (TCA 9-21-403). The authority is powerful!"

Wow! Late word from THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL (June 21) indicates this matter is on the way to being settled to the satisfaction of the Comptroller but some details remain to be settled this coming week.


It will be one year this coming Friday (June 28) that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is constitutional. But the controversy continues to rage over the massive new law even through it will be next year (2014) before it is fully implemented.

Here are some examples this past week just in the news here in Tennessee. THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL reports (June 19) efforts are beginning this coming week to drive enrollment into the new federally-run insurances exchanges in the state which actually start in October, 2013. The effort will include education events held in private homes across Nashville and in surrounding areas sponsored

By Enroll America. That is "a national coalition that aims to increase participation in the Affordable Care Act."

That group's efforts have come into the spotlight recently after Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and others in the GOP have criticized officials in the Obama administration for fundraising on behalf of the group. In fact, the senior senator from the Volunteer State turned up the volume on the issue this past week by getting all the Republican members of the Senate's health committee to sign a letter (June 19) asking "why and under what authority "the Obama administration is using time and resources to enroll Americans in new insurance exchanges.

Tennessee's entire congressional delegation (except for Stephen Fincher) went even further by complaining that Medicare contracts under the new law are being given out in Tennessee to companies not licensed to do business in the state. And just a few days ago, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services agreed, finding that 30 of the 98 medical suppliers awarded contracts in Tennessee are not licensed in here. And so, those contracts will be voided.

On a broader level, the General Accounting Office of Congress has issued a report (June 18) saying the federally run health insurance exchanges nationally (and here in Tennessee) may not be ready to start operations by October 1 as planned. The GAO says the feds weren't ready to have to run exchanges in 34 states and some deadlines have been missed or delayed. All this comes, adds the GAO, after nearly $400 million has been spent to set up the exchanges and data hub.

And so it goes……


Another week and still more favorable reviews for the Nashville brand in the national media. First, CNN Money ranks Nashville 6th among the eight most business-friendly cities in America. It says: "Nashville is a cheap place to live and taxes are low. Even better, the cooperative atmosphere that fosters its formidable music scene also makes it a great place for entrepreneurs."

Even the New York tabloids seem to love us…at least our exploding "foodie scene." Under the title "Nashville's cookin'" the article in THE NEW YORK POST (June 18) begins "Nashville is in the groove." It then goes on to have Mayor Karl Dean, local musicians and the city's best chefs create a guide to great places and great dishes to eat here. I'd list them all, but there's not a one I can eat on my low sodium diet these days!

The state of Tennessee (and possibly the city of Nashville) may be on the menu to be selected for another automotive headquarters. After Fiat-Chrysler's CEO raised the issue during an event in Pulaski, Tennessee (TENNESSEAN, June 19), media speculation has grown the combined company might leave Detroit and come here after the merger of the two firms is complete. Varoom!

There's one final piece of good news. It's been confirmed that the "Nashville" TV show will not only be back on the air nationally this fall, production and shooting of the show in Music City later this summer (TENNESSEAN, June 21).


This is an edition of INSIDE POLITICS I've been waiting to do with great expectations. As soon as Nashville PR executive and former journalist, Nashville Chamber chief and gubernatorial aide Keel Hunt told me he was writing a book on the early ouster (in January, 1979) of Governor Ray Blanton and the early swearing of Governor-elect Lamar Alexander (all to stop a pardons-for-cash scandal), I knew he had to come on the show as soon as the book was out.

And so it is. If you have any interest in Tennessee history or politics (or history or politics in general) COUP is a must-have and must-read book. That's right. Even if you lived through the experience (and reported on it, as I did) reading the first-hand accounts Hunt has compiled through over 160 interviews really brings this one-of-a-kind event (in both Tennessee and U.S. politics) back to life and puts it in all in perspective and relevance, even nearly 35 years after it all occurred.

Hunt also does a great job laying out the political background, the history and the players to understand what had been going on in the state in the years leading up to that fateful Wednesday, January 17, 1979. That's when a disclosure by the U.S. Attorney (Hal Hardin) that a number of prison inmates seemed ready to "buy" their way out of prison set in motion, in just a few short hours, a bi-partisan move (involving the state's Democratic leadership and Governor-elect Alexander) to stop it by changing who held Tennessee's top political position (the governorship).

I hope you'll find my interview with Keel Hunt equally interesting and a good way to get some background and perspective before you begin to read the book yourself.

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 NETWORK. Our air times include 5:00 a.m. Sunday on the main channel, WTVF-TV NEWSCHANNEL5. We are also on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS at 7:00 p.m. Friday, 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday, and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m., Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 150 and NEWSCHANNEL5's over-the-air digital channel. For those outside Nashville or who don't have cable access, portions of INSIDE POLITICS interviews are posted on NEWSCHANNEL5.com.

One final note for full disclosure: Yes, I am in the book. To say it's a cameo appearance would be an exaggeration. But you'll find me on pages 220-221. I was working at Channel 5 the evening the story broke (the station took the rare move of interrupting the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite to show the early swearing-in live from the State Supreme Court chambers). I was sent out to former Governor's Blanton's new home on Robert E. Lee Drive off Granny White Pike. There, after cooling our heels for a while, Blanton did come out to make a brief prepared statement. He was under a covered front porch, while the media was left standing out in the pouring rain. Given the former governor's rocky relationship with the media, especially in his later years in office, I suspect he told some real pleasure in that.


"You're the Miracle Man."

When a Catholic priest friend of mine (Father Joe McMahon) said that to me the other day, it stopped me in my tracks.

As I have said before, I have certainly felt "blessed" and "spared" in recovering from my stroke these past 12 months (it will be one year exactly since the stroke occurred next Friday, June 28). But I guess I never thought about it as a "miracle." While I've learned (after the fact) a few scary things about my condition that day (my blood pressure spiked up to 240, the left side of my face drooped and my legs collapsed when they lifted me to go onto a stretcher), I never felt like I was going to die.

And while having some difficulties moving my left side, arm and leg proved to be a challenge for a few months (and I still don't have complete range of motion), I always felt like I would recover. Even when I flunked the driving recertification test twice because I drove too much to the left, I always saw it as a temporary issue to deal with and, sure enough, two pieces of simple duct tape on the windshield worked things out.

Maybe I saw these challenges as surmountable because I was determined to recover. But also while I was in the hospital and then in rehab, I quickly learned and observed how fortunate I was; how so many others had strokes and other disabilities, that they were coping with, which were much more profound and (likely to be on-going) than mine turned out to be.

So me, a "miracle man"? Not really.

But I then I reflected some more.

If someone had told me the day before my stroke on June 27, 2012 that one year later I would be going to the Y twice a week to exercise, I would not have believed it for one minute. I was a life-long non-exerciser. I looked for ways to avoid exercise.

What if someone had told me on June 27, 2012 that one year later I would be using (every night) the sleep apnea machine the doctor recommended I start years ago? No way. I hated that machine. I felt smothered with so much hot air being blown up my nostrils I couldn't ever get to sleep. But now every night I do use it (a new version using air pillows for my nose, not a mask over my face, and one that alternates air pressure so it is easier to sleep). The payoff (and this is a miracle in a way) my blood pressure is in the low 100s over 66 or 70 (or even lower) each morning and usually in the 120s over 80 at night or lower (deep breathing exercises help too).

Of course, I still take two blood pressure medications every morning and night, but my improvement in this area would be considered near miraculous looking back a year ago.

And then there's my cut-back on diet soft drinks. Last June 27, I was a confirmed, long-time diet-coke alcoholic. I drank them morning, noon, night and in between. When I went out to eat, I drank them glass after glass after glass, thanks to free refills. My doctors didn't tell me to quit. My family did, alarmed by articles that link soft drinks to recurring strokes. Now, I didn't go completely cold turkey. I still allow myself one diet soda with a meal each day. And I am pretty strict about it. I know I would never have believed this possible a year ago. Is it a "miracle"? Yeah. Maybe so.

There's also my overall diet (which I mentioned earlier), cutting back on sodium as much as I can (to keep my blood pressure low). It's hard. Sodium is almost insidious in how it's in our food (it does add taste) and how much there is in some items you wouldn't expect, (but which I love) such as chips, crackers, cheese and soups. My wife, Betty Lee, has doing a great job finding sauces and low sodium foods I can eat (and that don't just taste awful). And I do eat a lot more fruit, especially apples.

It can be particularly hard to find low-sodium when I eat out. I look for grilled chicken a lot and fruit is my favorite side dish when I can find it. When I look at TV and I see all the ads for chips, pizza, soft drinks, soups (all the things I can't or don't eat) anymore, I really realize how much I've changed. Maybe it is a miracle. But don't worry. I've still got a sweet tooth, even though for now I am still 30-35 pounds lighter than my heaviest days.

So maybe I am a "miracle man."

I also know how fortunate I am to have all the great, loving family and friends I have and how much they have encouraged and supported me this past year. The other day, I re-read some of the e-mails I got last summer. They touched my heart….and I cried again.

I still haven't decided what to do to celebrate June 28, my new "birthday", the beginning of my new life. Maybe it's just a quiet dinner out with family. I do know wherever I go these days or when pictures of me are posted on Facebook, I get persistent comments on how "good" I look. I take it as a compliment, even though at first I got concerned wondering "how bad did I used to look?" Now I realize I am likely in the best shape of my life since high school and with me now pushing 62, anytime someone says I "look good," I'll take it.